Solitary confinement is no place for a kid. I know this from firsthand experience. As a young person in the criminal justice system, I was placed in solitary — locked down in a small cell for up to 24 hours a day — several different times before I was out of my teens. And although you can’t see them, I bear permanent scars from this treatment.
I first experienced a kind of solitary confinement in juvenile detention when I was 13 years old. We would get sent to lockdown for bad language or being too loud, or for forgetting to ask permission to talk, get up from our seats, or change the card game we were playing — basically, for acting like kids.
Where I was, the time in isolation usually lasted a few days. I know that in some juvenile facilities, children get locked down for weeks or months at a time.
When I was 15, I was accused of a serious felony, and while awaiting trial I was placed in "involuntary segregation" in county jail. I was put there solely due to my age and "for my own protection," but I was treated the same way as adults who were put in solitary for serious rule violations. We received two books a week, two sheets of paper, and a golf pencil. There was no access to any form of education or counseling for youth (or anyone else). In the wire cages we sometimes went to for exercise, the space was not much bigger than the cell. I spent seven and a half month in those conditions.
Once convicted, I was sent to adult prison, where I experienced several stays in "disciplinary segregation," usually lasting a few months each — for fighting, leaving my job early, arriving back late from a meal, and copying out the lyrics to a song that they deemed "gang related," probably just because it was rap.
The guards were petty, and liked to single out youngsters who had a lot of time to do — to try to "break" us, I guess. Something as simple as using profanity when speaking with a state employee would get us a couple of weeks in "seg." In other words, actions that would qualify as everyday misbehavior for most American teenagers would get us placed in conditions that have been widely denounced as torture, especially when used on young people.
A typical day as a kid in seg involved a lot of sleep — probably 16 hours on average. I’d wake up for breakfast, sleep until lunch, read for an hour or so, go back to sleep until dinner, pace back and forth, try to write poems or rap song lyrics, read, and wait/hope for mail — then go to sleep and do it all over again.
In some of that time I might find someone I could talk to through the crack in my door. We had so little to do, we’d end up yelling insults at the guards just to vent our anger and restlessness.
I was ruled by sorrow, fear and anger: Sorrow about missing people I used to know, and my mom. Fear about what might be coming next in my seemingly endless sentence. (I had no concept of what time really meant, so 15 years felt the same as 50.) And anger at those who I felt had wronged me. Back then I wasn’t skilled in identifying my emotions, let alone dealing with them appropriately.
There were no positives in my mind, no outlet to exercise the hurt and confusion. I was so lost. I never cut myself or attempted suicide, as I know a lot of kids in solitary do. But I did think about death a lot, and I had dreams of an apocalyptic world (and still do).
I know that solitary confinement caused me considerable psychological damage — or really, added to what was already brewing. It encouraged me to retreat deep into a demented reality where I was so alone, it made me feel as though I wasn’t meant for this world. I still feel that way to this day — like I don’t fit. On the clinical side, I was even more deeply depressed than I had been growing up.
Like most people who have served time in solitary as teenagers, I will someday be released from prison and resume life in the free world. And because of solitary I will never be right mentally, I fear. More than 10 years later, I think some of the effects have faded, but my panic attacks are so severe that they put me on anti-depressants for PTSD. I still have a hard time trusting, so I don’t consider too many people my "friends." It’s pretty lonely because of that, but I’m used to the feeling now.
I realize that prisoners, even young ones, sometimes need to be separated from one another for safety reasons. But I don’t think they should be put in segregation for things like talking back or being late for an appointment. And I don’t believe solitary confinement as it is practiced today is ever appropriate for teens. Kids need positive outlets whenever they are separated from others. They need some kind of program where they get counseling and periods to exercise their minds and emotions.
On any given day there are hundreds, and probably thousands, of kids under 18 in solitary confinement in America’s jails, prisons, and juvenile detention facilities. I know what they are suffering, and I wonder how many of them, like me, will bear the invisible scars of their isolation. It may be too late for us, but there is still time to save countless other children from this silent torture.
The author, now an adult, is serving a 15-year sentence in a West Coast prison. He writes under a pseudonym to avoid the risk of retaliation. He wishes to thank his mother and Solitary Watch for encouraging him to write and assisting in the publication of this work.
—McClatchy Tribune Services